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Stockholm is a city for the senses

15 things to know before visiting Sweden’s capital

By Scott Hartbeck, TravelPulse
Published: June 15, 2024, 5:34am
3 Photos
Stockholm is viewed from the Monteliusvagen scenic path.
Stockholm is viewed from the Monteliusvagen scenic path. (Scott Hartbeck/TravelPulse) Photo Gallery

Scandinavia is a sensational travel destination, with a quintessential European appeal and distinct northern character. Often overlooked due to the logistics of heading north and perceived expense (more on that later), the region is perfect for escaping the crowds and the oppressive heat that much of Europe experiences.

Stockholm makes a strong case for being Scandinavia’s most exciting city, and the following list of things to know before visiting should set you up for a successful trip, with practical advice and personal recommendations that your author wholeheartedly stands behind after a recent visit.

The city has an island identity

While most European capitals can be described as a patchwork of neighborhoods, Stockholm is a collection of islands. No matter where you go, you’ll always be within a stone’s throw of water, and this pleasant fact is likely to leave a lasting impression on you long after you leave.

Gamla Stan is great (but … )

Gamla Stan is the name of Stockholm’s atmospheric old town, and you’re probably going to spend a decent amount of time there, because it’s home to the Royal Palace, The Nobel Prize Museum, The Stockholm Cathedral and the swoon-worthy pastel facades of Stortorget Square. But it’s also very crowded and can be a bit, well, tacky in parts. With that said, take an early-morning or late-night stroll through the district to have some of its most romantic alleyways and cobbled streets all to yourself, and you’ll see Gamla Stan in its best light.

Södermalm# is super cool

Stockholm is home to a dozen districts worth exploring, each one offering a distinct slice of Swedish city life. But if you can make it to only one, make it Södermalm, the large island south of Gamla Stan. The classic tale of “working-class district turns trendy” definitely applies here, with rooftop bars hanging out where factory workers once toiled and resided. From the vintage shops hiding in back streets full of interesting architecture to the bustling bars on Folkungagatan and Götgatan streets, this district fizzes with fun.

Another reason to love Södermalm: the views. No trip here is complete until you’ve savored the Stockholm skyline from one of the many viewpoints in the district. On my first morning, I went to the Monteliusvägen walking path, and gazing upon Gamla Stan and the surrounding water served as the perfect opening ceremony. Trust me, you’ll be pinching yourself that you are actually in Stockholm.

The Vasa Museum deserves its reputation

What happens to a Swedish warship when it sinks on its maiden voyage in the 1600s and sits on the seafloor for centuries? Luckily for us, not a ton. The ship in question was the Vasa, and it was preserved by the cool local waters before being raised — nearly fully intact — in the 1960s. After a restoration project was complete, a shed-like museum was built around the Vasa, and now you can see the ship in all its glory while learning about the life and times of its crew and compatriots. Often touted as the No. 1 attraction in the city, it lives up to the hype.

Cash is no longer king

Do they accept cards in Stockholm? Oh yes. I didn’t even see a Swedish note the entire time. If you’re nostalgic for paper money, feel free to hit up an ATM and keep a few on you, but you won’t need them. Be aware, though, that on some public transportation, travelers have to provide their own distinct payment card.

You will meet great meatballs

It’s not a myth: Meatballs are a big thing in Sweden, and I found a great mix of quality and cool vibes at Meatballs For The People. Pick your meat (everything from classic beef and pork to chicken, reindeer and vegan), and soon you’ll have a ball feasting on a plate full of meatballs, mashed potatoes and zingy lingonberries. Wash it down with a local craft brew or a chilled shot of aquavit, Sweden’s favorite liquor. Speaking of craft beer …

Omnipollo is awesome

One of Europe’s elite craft outfits, Omnipollo owns a collection of bars around the city, all shrines to creative brewing. Located on a side street in Södermalm, Omnipollos Hatt serves a selection of its best beers alongside epic pizza and sides.

It’s not as pricey as people say

Stockholm will never be considered a budget-friendly or “cheap” destination, but the sticker shock that previously prevailed there seems to be gone. Whether Sweden has gotten cheaper or other countries like the U.S. and UK have gotten more expensive is a question for someone else, but when I was there recently, prices seemed in line with most European cities. A couple of slices of locally loved Princess cake and two refillable coffees at famed bakery Vete-Katten cost $19-something. A sit-down meal with a couple of drinks at hip fried chicken spot Bird cost $90.

The Metro stations are marvelous

You don’t have to be a content creator to get excited about the paint splashed over certain stations on the Stockholm Metro. Keep your eyes peeled, and you never know what you might see!

You don’t have to take the Arlanda Express

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if there is an express train from an airport, it must be the best way to get into the city. In the case of Stockholm, there are plenty of options besides the pricey Arlanda Express to get from the airport to the city center. If you’re in a hurry, by all means, jump on: The Arlanda Express takes off every 15 minutes and will get you to the airport in only 20 minutes. But be aware that there are less frequent local trains that travel the same route (some even get you there as quickly) and buses that take a little bit longer, but both will save you some krona.

Lunch with Lisa will be lovely

The undisputed star of the Östermalm Market Hall, Lisa Elmquist started as a seafood stall on the harbor nearly a century ago. It has now blossomed into so much more. Linger over a long lunch full of fresh shellfish and great wine, and you’ll leave Stockholm in love with this iconic brand.

Coffee culture rules

The Swedes love their coffee, and you’ll find batch-brewed filter java poured everywhere in Stockholm. From department store cafes to coffee shops, it is usually quality stuff — and usually refillable. After a morning of sightseeing, there’s no better way to spend an hour or so in the afternoon than by putting your feet up and enjoying a few cups with a cinnamon bun or cake on the side.

Visiting the archipelago is essential

Remember that tidbit about Stockholm proper being a collection of islands? Well, wait until you see the Stockholm Archipelago, which fans out from the city and contains thousands of rocky, sandy and forested islands. Frequent ferries shuttle travelers and locals between the isles, which range from the close-in Fjäderholmarna, where I enjoyed sunset drinks under the summer sun at Rökeriet restaurant, to honeypot Vaxholm and distant Sandham, the latter offering Martha’s Vineyard vibes.

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Find your dream island, then dedicate a little time to finding out the details of the ferry schedule, so you don’t have to sprint for (and miss) a ferry at the last minute, like I did.

You should stop for supermarket sweets

You will walk past a decent-sized supermarket at some point in your trip. Make sure to stop in and swing through the candy aisle, because you are in for a treat. Swedes adore their sweets, and it’s common for them to fill huge bags of self-serve goodies. So why not join the locals in this unique custom?

You’ll leave the city singing

If you don’t automatically associate Stockholm with music, you will after a visit. The most famous musical export is ABBA, and the iconic band has helped create an enthralling experience for fans at the ABBA Museum, located on leafy Djurgården Island. Whether you’re a huge fan or not, ABBA had a huge impact on pop culture, and you’ll probably walk out tapping your toes.

Stockholm is also the city of Avicii, and you can trace the life story of one of EDM’s most influential music makers at the Avicii Experience.

Like many other great European cities, Stockholm is home to great jazz clubs. The quirky Stampen leads the way, with its combination of knick-knacks on the wall and ace acts taking the stage like The Beat From Palookaville, who rocked the house the night I was in attendance.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be humming a mash-up of 1970s pop, 2010s dance and classic ska for weeks after you say goodbye to Stockholm.